The Trellis 403 Duke of Gloucester St., Williamsburg; 757/229-8610; dinner for two $66 (meal prices throughout do not include drinks, tax, or tip). In the old days, Virginia cuisine meant Chesapeake Bay shellfish swimming in butter, and the rich, salty tang of Smithfield ham. It still does, except that the shellfish are only wading now and the ham has been joined by exotic flavors from Asia and the Mediterranean. Marcel Desaulniers's evanescently pink restaurant is known for such seasonal offerings as grilled sea scallops on pumpkin fettuccine and pan-seared duck breast paired with pork medallions. But Desaulniers's true passion is chocolate— dark, milk, white, or all three—and that's the flavor you should leave with.
Todd Jurich's Bistro 210 W. York St., Norfolk; 757/622-3210; dinner for two $55. The most ambitious of Norfolk's chef-owned restaurants is this spiffy little bistro, sandwiched between downtown and the 19th-century mansions of the waterfront Freemason district. Jurich relies on local farmers yet comes up with dishes like Vietnamese spring roll with Smithfield pork on daikon- cucumber salad, and clam linguine in parsley-root broth with applewood-smoked bacon. Go figure.
Indian Fields Tavern Rte. 5, Charles City; 804/829-5004; dinner for two $60. Archer Ruffin Jr. has turned an abandoned overseer's cottage on Evelynton Plantation into one of the Tidewater's culinary landmarks. Try the sautéed oysters with wild mushrooms and polenta; follow it with crab cakes over Smithfield ham and Sally Lunn bread.
The Frog & the Redneck 1423 E. Cary St., Richmond; 804/648-3764; dinner for two $70. Jimmy Sneed's establishment in Shockoe Slip, the cobblestoned tobacco-warehouse quarter next to Richmond's sleek financial district, is considered a temple of the new Virginia cooking, despite its ungainly decoration and a few ungainly dishes. Skip the much-ballyhooed redneck risotto (grits is grits, Jimmy), but do give the place a try—the service is great, the crowd is mixed in every sense, and the redneck lobster (roast monkfish) is not bad at all.
Millies Restaurant 2603 E. Main St., Richmond; 804/643-5512; dinner for two $60. This friendly, crowded, no-fuss establishment puts out some of the best and most inventive regional cooking in the state. The smoked duck breast with cranberry chutney definitely should not be missed.
Métropolitain 214 W. Water St., Charlottesville; 804/977-1043; dinner for two $70. A contemporary eatery in a loftlike space that previously housed a hardware store. Have the Booker's single-batch bourbon (neat, of course, with water back), then try the smoky black-eyed-pea bisque or the astonishingly intense gâteau of portobellos with fried grits and parsley butter.
C&O Restaurant 515 E. Water St., Charlottesville; 804/971-7044; dinner for two $40. Haute meets funk: classic French cuisine in what was once a train workers' boardinghouse, hard by the tracks on the edge of downtown. There's an informal bistro downstairs with the same menu.
Clifton 1296 Clifton Inn Dr., Charlottesville; 804/971-1800; dinner for two $116. Sophisticated Virginia cooking in a country club environment. Cocktails in the drawing room are followed by a multicourse dinner with an impressive selection of wines. You don't have to wear a blue blazer, but it helps.
Willow Grove Inn 14079 Plantation Way, Orange; 540/672-5982; dinner for two $70. Updated plantation cooking in a white-columned manor house on a lonely country highway north of Charlottesville. Edna Lewis, who grew up nearby, has been known to serve as guest chef; otherwise, you'll be quite happy with the ragout of salmon, sausage, and crawfish followed by pan-seared tuna with red-pepper aioli and a fried cornmeal cake.
Inn at Little Washington Middle and Main Sts., Washington; 540/675-3800; dinner for two $200. Patrick O'Connell serves revelatory American cuisine in a rose-and-teal room that feels like the inside of a Fabergé egg. When he and Reinhardt Lynch opened in 1978, the only wines available from the local distributor were Boone's Farm and Ripple; their cellar now holds some 850 selections. Meanwhile, O'Connell's kitchen has done for cooking on the East Coast what Chez Panisse has done on the West.
Four & Twenty Blackbirds Flint Hill; 540/675-1111; dinner for two $55. A husband and wife team from the Inn at Little Washington have opened a delightfully casual dinner spot at a nearby crossroads. It's the only pink-and-plum-shingled restaurant in town.
Willson-Walker House 30 N. Main St., Lexington; 540/463-3020; dinner for two $40. The Shenandoah Valley is a culinary wilderness compared with Tidewater and the hunt country, but the Willson-Walker House is a standout, offering well-prepared American fare in an antebellum mansion grandly furnished in the Empire style.
Roadhouses and Cafés
Lancaster Tavern Rte. 3, Lancaster Court House; 804/462-5941; dinner for two $16; no alcohol. In an unrestored 18th-century tavern in a blink-and-you've-missed-it Tidewater village, Lindy Grigsby serves lunch and dinner family-style: meat loaf, sugar-cured ham, roast beef, roast pork, or whatever else she feels like making. It's all set before you with an array of fresh vegetables on an oilcloth-covered table you might end up sharing with local farmers. Do save room for dessert.
Surrey House Rte. 31, Surry; 804/294-3389; dinner for two $25. This fifties roadhouse done in knotty pine and tufted vinyl is the perfect setting for fried chicken, crab cakes, pork barbecue, salty Virginia ham (cured just down the road), and that other local delicacy, peanut soup.
Mrs. Rowe's Family Restaurant Rte. 250, Staunton; 540/886-1833; dinner for two $15. Fried chicken, Virginia ham biscuits, and dreamy banana pudding in an old-fashioned roadhouse that went up in 1947 and feels as if it hasn't changed since.
Once revered as the Mother of Presidents, Virginia is more accurately known as the Mother of House Tours. Late April is the time for Garden Week (sponsored by the Garden Club of Virginia, 12 E. Franklin St., Richmond; 804/644-7776), when the finest private estates open their doors; but the most important houses in the state are open year-round.
Arlington House Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington; 703/557-0613. Built in 1802 by Parke Custis, Martha Washington's grandson, this stately Neoclassical mansion became Robert E. Lee's when he married Custis's daughter. Lee left for Richmond when Virginia seceded, turning his back on Washington to lead the Army of Northern Virginia; he never returned.
Mount Vernon George Washington Memorial Pkwy., Mount Vernon; 703/780-2000. George Washington's Potomac River estate, grand in scale but utilitarian in design, includes a four-acre working farm. The house tour is instructive, but don't neglect the outbuildings if you want a real sense of 18th-century plantation life.
Gunston Hall 10709 Gunston Rd., Mason Neck; 703/550-9220. Small but exquisite, this was the Georgian manor house of George Mason, a framer of the Constitution (which he refused to sign because it failed to ban slavery). Gaze across the untamed deer park from his formal boxwood garden and you can sense what he was up to: bringing reason to human affairs, just as Newton had done with the heavens.
Stratford Hall Stratford; 804/493-8038. Robert E. Lee's birthplace on the Potomac is the most stunning of all the river mansions, a massive, H-shaped structure that guards its vast acreage with lordly grace.
Shirley 501 Shirley Plantation Rd., Charles City; 804/829-5121. Owned since the 18th century by the Carter family, one of the richest in colonial Virginia, and now inhabited by their 11th-generation descendants, this three-story 1723 mansion has green lawns sloping down to the James River. Lee's parents were married in the parlor.
Monticello Rte. 53, Charlottesville; 804/ 984-9822. The sheer unconventionality of Jefferson's mountaintop villa can't be fully appreciated until you've seen the Tidewater plantations. Then it all becomes clear: the Neoclassical design; the customary cluster of outbuildings gathered neatly under flanking terraces; and most remarkable of all, his obsession with gadgetry, as if with enough tinkering Jefferson could anticipate Thomas Edison or Henry Ford.
Oatlands 20859 Oatlands Plantation Lane, Leesburg; 703/777-3174. A Greek Revival gem in the northern Virginia hunt country, Oatlands was another Carter family estate, but its terraced gardens and 1920's English-country-house decoration speak to the power of big-city money from Washington.